Railroad Company v. Smith,
88 U.S. 255 (1874)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Railroad Company v. Smith, 88 U.S. 21 Wall. 255 255 (1874)

Railroad Company v. Smith

88 U.S. (21 Wall.) 255


1. The law does not require a party to pay for imperfect and defective work the price stipulated for a perfect structure, and when that price is demanded, will allow him to deduct the difference between that price and the value of the inferior work, and also the amount of any direct damages flowing from existing defects, not exceeding the demand of the plaintiffs. The deduction is allowed in a suit upon the contract to prevent circuity of action.

2. The plaintiffs entered into a contract with the Florida Railroad Company to construct for the company a swinging drawbridge over a river in Florida in accordance with a submitted plan and tracings, for a stipulated price. In an action upon the contract for the price stipulated, the company set up part payment and alleged defective construction of the bridge and delays and expenses incident thereto, and claimed by way of recoupment to deduct from the demand of the plaintiffs the damages thus sustained. On the trial, the deposition of a witness was offered, to whom interrogatories were put inquiring whether the structure and arrangements of the bridge caused any injury or damage, hindrance or delay, to the company in the running of its railroad, and whether any hindrance or delay was caused by the imperfect construction of the bridge to any vessel in the navigation of the river, and whether the structure or working of the bridge rendered it liable to be injured or

Page 88 U. S. 256

destroyed by vessels navigating the river; and what number of hands were required to work the drawbridge, and what number would be necessary if it had been properly constructed. Held that the interrogatories were pertinent and proper in themselves; that the objection that they related to speculative damages did not apply to the first and last, in which the damages sustained would be the subject of actual estimation, and that the facts sought would at least have furnished elements to the jury fur a just estimate of the damages to be recouped from the demand of the contractor.

3. To render an exception available in this Court, it must affirmatively appear that the ruling excepted to affected or might have affected the decision of the case. If the exception is to the refusal of an interrogatory, not objectionable in form, put to a witness on the taking of his deposition, the record must show that the answer related to a material matter involved; or if no answer was given, the record must show the offer of the party to prove by the witness particular facts to which the interrogatory related, and that such facts were material.

4. Where a contract calls for the construction of a drawbridge upon which the cars of a railroad company can cross, it implies that the bridge shall be serviceable for that purpose and capable of being used with like facility as similar bridges properly constructed. If a defect in the condition of a pier upon which the bridge is to rest will prevent this result from being attained, it is the duty of the contractors to insist upon an alteration of the pier or to make it themselves before proceeding with the construction of the bridge.

5. Where a pier of a bridge was built under the supervision of an agent of the contractors for the bridge, and in accordance with his directions, he is held to have knowledge of any defect in the pier, and his knowledge in this particular is the knowledge of the contractors.

In November, 1866, Smith and another entered into a contract with the Florida Railroad Company to construct for that company a swinging drawbridge at the crossing of its road over Amelia River in Florida in accordance with a submitted plan and tracings, for the sum of $4,360, the bridge to be made of iron, except the chords, and ready for delivery to the company by the 1st of February following, and the money for its construction to be paid on its completion in accordance with the specifications.

The present action was brought against the company upon this contract, and was in form to recover damages for its breach, but in fact to recover the money stipulated for the

Page 88 U. S. 257

work, the plaintiffs contending that the bridge was constructed by them in accordance with the contract, and was received by the company in the summer of 1867. In defense to the action, the company set up part payment of the demand and also alleged that the bridge was constructed in an imperfect and defective manner, so as to be unfit for the uses for which it was designed, and that to remedy its defects and make it of use, the company was compelled to incur large expenditures for material and labor and was subjected to special damages by the detention it caused to a vessel on the river. The expenditures thus incurred and the special damages thus sustained the company sought by way of recoupment to deduct from the demand of the plaintiffs.

On the trial, the defendant introduced evidence to show that the bridge was improperly constructed; that the draw was defective and worked with difficulty; that the contractors frequently received notice of the defects, and that they had admitted that the arrangements were imperfect and had made repeated efforts to remedy the defects until September, 1869; that the floor beams and stringers placed in the bridge were made of wood instead of iron, and that the difference between their cost and that of iron beams and stringers was about $2,500; that the bridge was not completed so as to enable the cars of the company to cross upon it until the summer of 1867, and although then used by the company for the passage of cars, it was never formally received as constructed in accordance with the contract.

The defendants also offered the deposition of a witness by the name of Meador, taken in the case, and part of it was received and read. Some of the interrogatories to this witness and his answers to them were excluded. The deposition, as read, showed that the witness had acted as engineer of the Florida company during the construction of the bridge and until the summer of 1869; that its construction did not fulfill the conditions of an ordinary railroad drawbridge on account of the difficulty in opening and closing it; that it was not in good working order at any time during

Page 88 U. S. 258

his connection with the road; that the defects in the turning arrangements were communicated to the plaintiffs soon after the bridge was built, and that complaints continued to be made until he came away in 1869. The interrogatories, the answers to which were excluded, were as follows:

"1st. State whether the structure and arrangements of said bridge caused any injury or damage, hindrance or delay, to the defendants in the running of the railroad on the same, and if so, state particularly what."

"2d. State whether or not any hindrance or delay was caused by the imperfect construction of said bridge to any vessel, steamboat, or craft in the navigation of said river over which said bridge was built, and if so, what."

"3d. State whether or not the imperfect structure or working of said bridge caused danger of its injury or destruction by vessels navigating said river; if so, the reason of such damage."

"4th. State the number of hands required to work said drawbridge, and how many would be necessary if properly constructed."

The objection to these interrogatories was that they related to speculative damages. The court excluded them and the answers to them, and the defendant's counsel excepted to the ruling. The answers were not contained in the record.

The defendants also offered to prove by experts that the plan of the machinery and the machinery itself on which the bridge rested and swung was so defective and so unskillfully put up, and the turning gear itself so defective and unskillfully attached, that it took eight or ten men to swing the bridge, and that the bridge had to be swung twice a week on an average at a cost of $15 every time it was swung. And further, to prove by experts that under a contract to build such a drawbridge as was specified in the contract between the parties to this suit, it was the common understanding among persons skilled in bridge building that the bridge should be so constructed as to be easily turned in two or three moments by one man. And further to prove by experts

Page 88 U. S. 259

that in the construction of bridges of the kind in question, it was always understood that whether the kind of material was specified or not, the builders are bound to use good material and to make strong and substantial work adapted to the use and purpose for which it is intended. And further, to prove that in the profession and business of bridge building, it is always understood by a contract to build a drawbridge that it is to be built of good material and in a workmanlike manner, and also to prove by experts that the quality of material of this bridge, both wood and iron, was very bad and put together in an unworkmanlike manner.

The court ruled that the proof thus offered was inadmissible and irrelevant, and the defendant's counsel excepted.

There was evidence in the case offered on the part of the plaintiffs tending to show that the imperfect working of the draw of the bridge was owing to a defect in the pier, consisting in the variation of the pier from a level, as it was originally laid. It also appeared in evidence that the pier was built under the supervision of an agent of the contractors by the name of Grant and in conformity with his directions, and was accepted by him as sufficient, and that he supervised also the construction of the bridge.

The court instructed the jury in substance that if they found from the evidence that the difficulty in turning the bridge arose from the defect in the pier, and not in the bridge, then the fault would be in the defendant, whose duty it was to put the pier in proper order to receive the bridge. The court continued:

"But it is urged that Grant, the agent of the plaintiffs for the building of the bridge, superintended and directed the laying of the granite coping of the pier, and therefore, if imperfectly done, the plaintiffs were responsible. That may be true if it were shown that Grant in so doing was acting within the scope of his authority as agent for the plaintiffs; but unless the jury find from the evidence that Grant was authorized by the plaintiffs to furnish the pier as well as build the bridge, any direction of his to the builder of the pier cannot affect or prejudice the

Page 88 U. S. 260

rights of the plaintiffs or bind them in any degree. There is no evidence that he had any authority from the plaintiffs to do anything but build the bridge."

To this instruction the defendants' counsel excepted.

The jury found a verdict for the plaintiffs, assessing their damages at $4,014. Upon this verdict judgment was entered, to review which the case was brought here on writ of error.

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